Whether it's vaccines, nuclear power, fluoride in water or any number of issues, people's, fear comes from several sources and is then amplified by various facets of human nature and those who can gain by exploiting it. There are many factors that go into the fear of GMOs. Here are a few of the major ones, in my view:
- People fear what they don’t understand. This is a major issue. The science is complicated. It takes awhile to explain to people how genetic engineering is done and why.
- People don’t have basic knowledge of science. I have talked to researchers who have shared with me anecdotes of people who have told them that they “try not to eat things that contain DNA because they’re afraid it’s going to contaminate their genes.” This lack of basic knowledge of biology makes people vulnerable to misinformation.
- GMOs seem unnatural. People don’t like the idea of researchers moving genes from one organism into another across species barriers (for example, putting a bacteria gene into soy to make it herbicide resistant). There are at least two problems with this: first, “species” are arguably a human construct – a system of classification we’ve created to help us keep things organized. Pretty much all living things have many genes in common. Second, nature does genetic engineering all the time. For example, soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens is a natural genetic engineer, inserting its own DNA into host plants to make them more beneficial to itself (and, in at least one case, for us: the sweet potato naturally contains Agrobacterium genes). This talent is harnessed by researchers to insert genes they want into plants.
- People make snap decisions, and this forms the basis of their beliefs. They may have heard bad things about GMOs, and organizations they think of as the “good guys” are saying these bad things. People are busy, so they decide to shop from the organic aisle, just to be safe, and go back to getting their kids to soccer practice.
- People stick to their tribes. If all the people you like and respect tell you that GMOs are bad, you tend to believe them. Plus, there can be a high price to pay for going against your tribe’s beliefs. Case in point: Mark Lynas, a former UK anti-GMO activist, changed his mind about GMOs very publicly and was shunned by his former colleagues and friends for his trouble.
- People love to hate corporations. Genetic engineering researchers work for universities, government labs, and corporations. This is true of many areas of research, but with genetic engineering, corporations are working on people’s food, something they put in their bodies every day. People distrust corporations and it’s easy to paint them as bad guys.
- There’s money in misinformation. This is basically marketing. If you can convince customers that your competitors’ products are inferior or even dangerous, you can get them to buy your own. An excellent example of this is the Non-GMO Project, whose logo is plastered everywhere, increasingly on products that have no GMO equivalent, or even DNA (I’ve seen the label on salt, for example —which, as a mineral, contains no more DNA than any other rock).
- There’s money in demonization. One way to loosen public purse strings is to identify a target and paint them as a powerful bad guy, bent on shadowy activity that is going to harm people and their families. Then, paint yourself as the white knight, who alone has detected their nefarious deeds and is fighting the good fight on the public’s behalf. But battles need resources, which is about the time you see the “please donate!” button.
This is certainly not a comprehensive list of reasons why people fear GMOs, but these are a few major ones. The science, however, does not support these fears. Genetic engineering is no more risky, and arguably much less risky, than any other breeding method.
PHOTO: A Saskatchewan canola crop in summer. Most canola varieties grown in Canada are products of genetic engineering, commonly referred to as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
Michael Robin is a Saskatoon-based science writer and communication strategist. This article was first published on Science, Simplified and republished with the author's permission.